Three former executives of a Hawaii-based defense contractor pleaded not guilty in federal court Wednesday to allegations they funneled illegal campaign donations to a U.S. senator.
Martin Kao, 48, Clifford Chen, 48, and Lawrence “Kahele” Lum Kee, 52, of Martin Defense Group LLC, formerly known as Navatek LLC, are charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and to make “conduit” and government contractor contributions to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who won re-election in 2020.
Kao also is charged with two counts of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. He once worked as the company’s CEO, Chen as chief financial officer and Lum Kee was the accountant.
Chen and Lum Kee turned themselves in to the FBI’s Honolulu Division on Tuesday. All three defendants entered not guilty pleas Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia via video conference.
Honolulu attorney Megan Kau, who is representing Lum Kee, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser the indictment of her client is an unfortunate case of government overreach. Lum Kee, who worked for Kao for about three months, is cooperating with the government and has turned over every record requested by investigators, she said.
“The United States can charge someone with a federal crime for following orders and doing their jobs,” Kau said. “This is a case where the government has totally overreached. He doesn’t know Susan Collins. He created a company his boss told him to create. Now he’s being charged with a federal crime? This is not the case for the federal government to bring at this moment.”
Honolulu defense attorney Victor Bakke, representing Chen, and Washington, D.C., defense attorney David Benowitz, who is representing Kao, did not immediately respond to a Star-Advertiser request for comment.
Neither did Catherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington.
The three men are free on their own recognizance, with a status conference scheduled for May 5. They were indicted Feb. 10.
Martin Defense Group was based in Hawaii and operated offices in Maine, Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Michigan, Oklahoma, Kansas and South Carolina. It designed and analyzed ship hull forms, ocean structures, underwater lifting bodies and coupled hydrodynamic systems, according to the company, which did much contract work for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Between 2010 and 2020, Kao and former Navatek executives donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of congressional members who represented the states where they did business and those with seats on defense appropriations subcommittees, according to Federal Election Commission records.
As a defense contractor, Martin Defense Group was prohibited from using government contractor funds to make contributions to a political action committee supporting a U.S. Senate candidate.
The trio are accused of creating a shell company to conceal the source of an illegal contribution of $150,000 to an independent, expenditure-only political action committee, or super PAC, that supported Collins.
According to the FEC, super PACs may receive “unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, labor unions and other political action committees for the purpose of financing independent expenditures and other independent political activity.”
The alleged shell company, the Society of Young Women Scientists and Engineers LLC, or SYWSE, was incorporated Nov. 26, 2019, with Kao’s spouse as registered agent and manager.
Lum Kee allegedly wrote a check for $150,000 from Martin Defense Group to SYWSE, which contributed the same amount to the super PAC.
The super PAC on Dec. 31, 2019, reported the contribution to the FEC. On Feb. 3, 2020, the day allegations that SYWSE was used to make illegal campaign contributions were publicly reported, Kao had the shell company’s post office box closed, the indictment said.
The three men allegedly used their family members to make illegal donations to Collins’ campaign after they reached the federal donation limit and then reimbursed themselves for those donations using company cash.
The Feb. 10 indictment does not link a separate set of federal charges from 2020 accusing Kao of bank fraud and money laundering of more than $12.8 million in CARES Act funds. But the timing of the fraudulent acts, alleged to have occurred in the spring of 2020, coinciding with the last election cycle.
The Justice Department has not charged Chen or Lum Kee in connection with the CARES Act case.